Two-time finisher Damian Hall explains what it takes to complete the Spine Race, famed as being one of the world’s most savage single-stage ultra running events.
The Spine Race – Don’t believe the hype
The Spine Race is a foot race along the 268-mile Pennine Way, England’s oldest and toughest National Trail, which wiggles along the tops of the Pennines all the way from the Peak District to Scotland. It calls itself ‘Britain’s most brutal race’ while co-race director Scott Gilmour has also labelled it, ‘Almost perfect in its cruelty’. But completing the Spine Race is far from impossible. I finished it less than two years after my first marathon. So it is do-able. But it is difficult.
Actually, do believe the hype
After my first Spine Race I went from size medium to size small. After my second Spine Race I couldn’t run for seven weeks because my lower-leg tendons were seriously annoyed about it all. It’s a single-stage race, so the clock is always ticking and less than half the field usually finishes. You have to carry full mountain marathon kit of around 4-8kg, including sleeping bag, shelter and food.
It’s in winter, so most of the race is spent in the dark, while floods, ice, snow and absurdly strong winds – water bottles and hydration bladder hoses freeze up – are all common. Potentially fatal hypothermia is a regular DNF cause. Grown men cry. Bones get broken. Some ‘Spiners’ have discovered trench foot isn’t just something that happened in France during World War I.
All Spiners become chronically sleep deprived, making hallucinations and falling asleep on your feet comically likely. A few years ago one Spiner ran straight into the back of a cow.
But the Spine Race is amazing
There is no doubting that it’s a proper adventure. The Pennine Way has some painfully beautiful places and a surprising, rewarding remoteness. You’re often close to some of England’s biggest cities, but feel a million miles away. You could easily go a day without seeing anyone.
There’s an immense sense of freedom to be had – the joy of being in wild, rugged and remote places, with like-minded people, high on endorphins and too many caffeine gels. There’s a wonderful and rare simplicity in the days and a powerful sense of mission.
Swapping screens and bleeping technology for moody moorlands, enigmatic rock formations, melodramatic skies and, okay, a few man-devouring peat bogs, is something we should all do more often. Spine Race staff, too, are wonderful, while locals chip in with amazing acts of kindness as your mobile phone fills with messages from people you barely know, following online. It’s become an obsession for many. Many, despite seemingly having a nightmarish time, go back for seconds, and thirds.
You need to look after yourself
The Spine Race can seem overwhelmingly daunting and complex – there are just so many things that can go wrong. But really, it’s refreshingly simple: look after yourself and keep heading north. Stay warm, keep eating, treat your feet like royalty, sleep occasionally (two-time winner Pavel Paloncý doesn’t usually sleep for the first two nights), smile, relax and enjoy your adventure.
To stay warm, I try to remain dry and keep moving. For nutrition, the race is a pie-guzzler’s dream – you burn so many calories that you simply can’t eat too much, and there are pubs and cafes en route too. On my feet I wear the grippy, cushioned inov-8 shoes from the ROCLITE range (as in photo and video below with lots of other cool inov-8 kit for long adventure runs and fast-packing) and, for foot care, use the magical Care Plus Camphor Spray. I find it difficult to sleep on the first two nights, because I’m like a five-year-old on Christmas Eve. After that it’s a battle to stay awake. Embracing the adventure isn’t a problem if you love running and love being outdoors when others would rather be indoors.
And you need a sense of humour
You won’t get through the Spine Race experience without a sense of humour. For example, Paloncý carries a towel on the side of his pack, as a tribute to cult sci-fi comedy The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.
In the 2015 race, a small group of us took shelter in a refuge hut in the big, lonely Cheviot hills. During the snowstorm a member of the Border Search and Rescue Unit said, ‘This is possibly the most severe storm I’ve ever experienced.’ To which competitor Matt Neale replied, ‘This has been one of the best holidays I’ve ever had!’ Tim Laney then chirped up, ‘ You must have had some pretty shit holidays!’
In the Spine Race Film for 2015, you see me at Hawes, the second major check point, talking to Nici Griffin, HQ head honcho and all-round ultra mum. ‘What’s the weather forecast like?’ I ask, hoping for a positive response. ‘Shit,’ she says. ‘It’s not f****** Barbados you know. Get out there!’
*The 2018 Spine Race starts on Sunday, January 14. Paloncý is again one of the favourites and is running in our ARCTICTALON 275 shoes, which have metal spikes on the outsole to improve grip over over ice and snow.
— Nicki Lygo (@DrLygo) January 15, 2018
*Discover more about inov-8’s #MyRoclite #GetAGrip24 campaign featuring kit that is perfect for long adventures.